Dive into Compassion with Daryl Foong, Executive Director of Aquaria KLCC
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Few can say that they’ve fulfilled a childhood dream, but for Daryl Foong, it’s safe to say that he has realised his. Growing up, he would be completely absorbed in the encyclopaedias his mother got for him. She is an animal lover and an environmentalist, and has passed on similar qualities to Daryl, affecting how he sees and interacts with the world during his childhood years.
At first, he would flip through the thick volumes for the curious pictures, but once he learnt how to read, he was off to the races. Marine creatures were his great interest, and the octopus particularly fascinated him. As an adult, he would find his way to an aquarium, discovering many new, strange and wonderful underwater life forms, even during his travels.
This made him keen to pursue marine biology. However, life had other plans for him. “As I got older, I got more realistic and focused. Who’s going to ask me to come work at an aquarium? Back then, this wasn’t a big thing,” Daryl said. After a career in marketing, Daryl found his way back to his passion.
Aquaria KLCC is home to over 5,000 aquatic and land-bound creatures. Spanning over 60,000 square feet, taking care of this state-of-the-art oceanarium is no small feat, and it sure does take a village. Each day, the animals and their environment go through a routine check. The in-house aquarium team works with the facility teams to replicate the animals’ natural habitats, while engineering a home where they can thrive and develop natural behaviour. It’s an environment that goes beyond a facsimile; an actual sustainable environment where aquatic life can thrive, learn, and be stimulated. Divers, on the other hand, are tasked with feeding the fish, cleaning the tanks and maintaining the pipes inside the tanks.
The ocean is clearly a source of inspiration and wisdom for Daryl. From his observations, he finds that these creatures are highly intelligent. “This may not be something you ascribe to a fish, but they actually have friends. There are certain preferences that fish have for other fish, like moray eels pair up with groupers to go hunting.”
This symbiotic relationship shows just how everything in the ocean fits together perfectly—like a puzzle. In the water, the rules are simple. There is a relationship between a predator and its prey, where the predator only takes what is necessary. The blue sea has taught Daryl the importance of coexisting in harmony, as well as finding a balance in life.
“Every living thing has a balance, has a place, and it’s only when we act against the scale that things can get thrown out of whack. You see the change in the environment around you and the reaction of the creatures around you, both people and the animals in the ocean. In the waters, you get a very strong sense of serenity and belonging in the world because of how vast the ocean is. It makes you realise how both intricate, yet insignificant we are at the same time,” said Daryl.
In his five years of working at Aquaria, Daryl learnt a great deal about what goes into truly caring for the aquatic species. He understands that while awareness is important, individuals are not to blame for the dire situation that is currently facing the planet. “Realistically speaking, we only contribute a very, very small percentage in terms of plastic consumer waste that’s going into the ocean. The vast majority of it is still coming from the industrial sector,” shared Daryl. When it comes to the depletion of fish stocks, he argues that it’s due to lack of regulation in the fishing industry and unsustainable practices that can be found all over the world.
Oftentimes, campaigns for the environment go misdirected. Small-scale fishermen (most of which earn just enough to get by) should not be the target of such aggressive efforts. These fishermen are busy figuring out how to feed their family, and how to keep their children in school. Some don’t even have the means to send the kids to school in the first place, so they have these children working in an effort to earn what little they can. For Daryl, it’s a structural issue that needs to be addressed rather than propagandised.
“You shouldn’t do that without providing them alternatives. That would be quite short-sighted of us because their concerns differ greatly from yours as a conservationist. So until we can raise their standards of living and make alternatives more accessible and sensible for people to adopt, it’s quite contentious for us to think that we can solve this in one fell swoop.”
Caring for the ocean and its inhabitants may feel like a Herculean task, but Daryl believes that Aquaria KLCC is able to teach its visitors a lesson or two about it. “It’s very hard for you to love something you don’t understand. For the longest time, people were terrified of sharks. Why not? It was a predator people knew very little about, and many times, these sharks are larger than humans, and it has these menacingly sharp teeth. But as time went on, you learn more and more about them and people develop an understanding about sharks that went beyond films like Jaws,” he opined.
“We instil in our visitors a sense of why; why these animals are here, what role they play in our ecosystem, how this relates to us humans, and why we should care and need to look after the oceans, and ultimately why we should be responsible for it.”
The aquarium is not just a spectacle for the patrons to be entertained by. It allows for people the opportunity to come meet the animals that many may not have easy access to. It’s one thing to learn about their roles in the ecosystem, but it’s a whole different level of experience to have the animal itself in front of you.
On top of that, Aquaria KLCC has also released many animals into the wild through its breeding programmes. One of the most successful endeavours has been with the bamboo sharks, where the programme releases hundreds of them each year. If you haven’t heard of such efforts, that is because they don’t want to alert anyone about the whereabouts of the sharks.
Aquaria also partners with other aquariums by trading the creatures from their breeding programme, so that instead of taking from the ocean, the aquariums share what they can to display an ideal exhibit. Animals such as rays and seahorses have previously been traded with other aquariums.
They dip their toes into research as well, collaborating with Malaysian universities such as Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) for a coral restoration project. As you walk into Aquaria, those coral displays are the successful result of the collaboration.
The pandemic has significantly impacted the visitorship of the aquarium. Despite that, Aquaria KLCC still endeavours to bring the aquatic wonders to the public. To achieve that, they have partnered with Malaysia’s Ministry of Education to add to the virtual classroom. School children can visit the platform to get a better understanding of what they learn from textbooks. “We are hoping to give people that spark of curiosity that we hope will lead people to a sense of appreciation and love for the ocean,” Daryl shared in closing.
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